BY STEPHANE BLAIS, THE CANADIAN PRESS
MONTREAL — Cyberbullying by vegan activists is a growing source of stress for farmers and agricultural producers who already face significant mental health challenges linked to the job, a farmer and a psychologist working in the agriculture sector say.
Farmer Mylene Begin, who co-owns Princy farm in Quebec’s Abitibi-Temiscamingue region, created an Instagram account a few years ago to both document daily life on the farm and combat what she calls “disinformation and the negative image,” of agriculture. Today, she describes herself as the target of bullying from vegan activists.
Begin recently changed the settings on her account after having to get up an hour early to delete more than 100 negative messages a day — some of which made her fear for her safety, she said.
“There was one that took screenshots of my photos, he shared them on his feed after adding knives to my face and writing the word ‘psychopath’ on my forehead,” the 26-year-old said. “It made me so scared.”
She said some of the messages compared artificial insemination of cows to rape, while others used the words “kidnapping” and “murder” to describe the work of cattle breeders.
The problem, she said, is that many city people don’t understand agriculture but become severe critics nonetheless.
“It affects you psychologically. It’s very heavy even if we try not to read (the comments),” she said. “The population has become disconnected from agriculture. We all have a grandfather who did it, but today in the eyes of many people we’re rapists and poisoners, and that’s what hurts me the most.”
Pierrette Desrosiers, a psychologist who works in the agricultural sector, said bullying on the part of hardcore vegan activists on social media is a new source of stress for a growing number of farmers.
“At school, the children of farmers start to be bullied and treated as the children of polluters, or else the kids repeat what they see on social media and say breeders rape the cows (when artificially inseminating),” she said.
“It’s now a significant source of stress for producers, and it didn’t exist a year or two ago.”
Desrosiers, a farmer’s daughter and wife, is critical of the communications strategy used by certain animals rights groups and vegan associations.
“They use words like ‘rape’ and ‘murder’ to strike the imagination,” she said. “It’s anthropomorphism,” she added, referring to the attribution of human traits and emotions to animals and objects.
Beginning last year, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food spent several months studying the mental health challenges facing farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers. The report, completed in May, found that farmers are vulnerable to mental health problems due to “uncertainties that put them under significant pressure,” including weather and environmental challenges, market fluctuations, debt, and paperwork.
“The isolation that many farmers experience and the stigmatization they sometimes face, particularly on social media, amplify this stress,” the report stated.
Their recommendations included an education campaign to combat cyberbullying and threats against farmers, as well as updating the Criminal Code to include cyberbullying against groups of Canadians based on their job or place of residence.
Frederic Cote-Boudreau, who recently completed a philosophy doctorate at Queen’s University and who studies animal ethics, said he’s a vegan who would like to see animals recognized as equal to humans.
However, he said, the language used by some animal rights defenders on social media is “counterproductive” to the cause.
“I’ve rarely seen someone get convinced by this kind of divisive approach,” he said. “When we’re told we’re cruel, we’re less receptive to what the other side is saying.”
But while he believes a peaceful approach is a more effective way to grow the movement, he said he shares the activists’ concerns and their strong emotions when faced with a society that appears to accept exploitation and violence towards animals.
His doctoral thesis defended the idea that animals should have the right to make choices, including where to live, who to develop relationships with and how to spend their days.
“We have ample scientific proof about the emotional life and capacity to suffer of animals,” he said. “It’s well-demonstrated that being coldly mutilated, crammed together, not being able to move normally, not being able to develop healthy social relationships, we know that it has enormous psychological and physical impacts on animals.”